The girl sat on the bunk in her cell in one of San Diego County’s female juvenile detention units as staff members explained that she was being placed on suicide watch.
They told her she had to strip naked in front of them, including in front of a male staff member.
She refused, twice. So they sprayed her in the face with pepper spray, then shut the door to her cell. Two minutes later, they asked if she was going to cooperate. She refused, and they sprayed her a second time and again shut the door.
Minutes later, they opened the door and sprayed her again. She vomited. They then sprayed her yet once more.
After the fourth blast of pepper spray, the girl finally submitted. Probation staff ordered her to crawl out of the cell, where they handcuffed her, forcibly removed her clothing, cut off her shirt and bra, strip-searched her, put her in a gown and placed her in solitary confinement for 48 hours.
This account is one of dozens of abuses of pepper spray by the San Diego County Probation Department at its East Mesa and Kearny Mesa juvenile facilities, revealed Monday by the Youth Law Center (YLC), a San Francisco legal advocacy nonprofit.
In a 34-page formal complaint supported by more than 170 individual exhibits, YLC has asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the probation department and order it to end the use of pepper spray and other practices that YLC says violate youths’ constitutional rights.
Nine groups co-signed the complaint, including California Rural Legal Assistance, El Grupo, the San Diego branch of the NAACP, Border Angels, Latinos Organizing for Action, Alliance San Diego, CSA San Diego, American Friends Service Committee San Diego and the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association.
“We are particularly concerned that the youth subjected to what we consider inhumane and abusive practices are disproportionately youth of color,” the complaint says, ” in particular Latino and African American youth.”
According to the complaint, YLC and El Grupo initiated an investigation of pepper-spray use in San Diego County juvenile facilities in 2012 after San Diego CityBeat, in collaboration with The Crime Report, reported that pepper spray, also known as leoresin capsicum, or OC spray, had been used on juveniles 461 times in a single year.
The CityBeat investigation was produced as a reporting project for the 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting program. Dave Maass was a Reporting Fellow. Kelly Davis, who contributed to this piece, also served as a Reporting Fellow for John Jay's Center on Media, Crime and Justice, which publishes The Crime Report.
The original stories noted that only a handful of states allow juvenile-detention staff to carry pepper spray. More than 70 percent of facilities nationwide ban its use entirely.
Many jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Division of Juvenile Justice and the Texas Youth Commission have been forced to reduce pepper-spray usage after legal pressure from civil rights groups and youth advocates.
In San Diego juvenile facilities, probation officers have wide discretion to use pepper spray, whether it’s the small bottles they carry or the large canisters, nicknamed “Big Berthas,” designed to quell riots.
Before deploying pepper spray, officers call out the “Cover” command; every youth within earshot is required to assume a crouch position, with hands clasped over their head to avoid getting sprayed.
In April 2013, YLC attorneys and Victor Torres from El Grupo, a Latino civil rights organization, met with county probation officials to discuss reports of excessive pepper-spray use on juvenile detainees. YLC staff attorney Sue Burrell says they followed up with a formal records request to find out if probation officials were sincere in their claim that pepper spray was used only when there were no alternatives to bring combative detainees under control.
“The county’s consistent public position was that it was a shame the youth fight so much, so staff are forced to resort to pepper spray,” Burrell says. “The vast majority of juvenile facilities in the United States do not use pepper spray at all, and the San Diego kids are not any more violent or sophisticated than the kids in those places.”
YLC identified dozens upon dozens of cases of improper use of pepper spray. Probation staff sprayed youth at risk of suicide; youth who simply were disobedient; youth with respiratory, cardiovascular and skin problems; and youth being treated with psychotropic medication.
They used it to gas-out detainees who refused to leave their cells. They sprayed detainees as young as 12 years old. They sprayed multiple girls who refused to strip at the request of male staff.
YLC documented evidence of 147 youths who weren’t doing anything wrong but were nonetheless exposed to pepper spray because staff had used too much on other detainees. In five separate incidents, staff used at least a pound of pepper spray.
El Grupo's Torres says he was stunned by the brutality exhibited in the incident reports.
“My jaw dropped,” he says. “I was reading these things thinking to myself, Holy moly, are these for real? It was astounding, the level of callousness and lack of understanding. How do you rehabilitate people when you cage them like animals and treat them like dogs?”
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